"Spell it. Gig—no, it's no use. What's the other part of his name?"
"That's a little better. I guess he'll have to be Manlio to me. Bring him along, whatever happens, and then let's pray hard to have everything happen right."
* * * * *
Not much later on the same day Mrs. Hawthorne's brougham might have been seen climbing Viale dei Colli, with the lady inside, alone, engaged in meditation.
"It would be a pity," she was thinking, as she alighted before Villa Foss, "that a little matter of eight thousand dollars should stand in the way of perfect bliss!"
So many forces had been enlisted, into so many hands the white card given, to make Mrs. Hawthorne's ball a success, that it could hardly fail to be somewhat splendid. On a platform raised in one corner of the ball-room sat the little orchestra assembled and conducted by Signor Ceccherelli, who, from his mien, might have been the creator of these musicians and originator of all music.
Charlie Hunt was floor-master, and busy enough. Another might perhaps have done as much and not appeared so busy. The cotillion especially gave him a great deal to do. Everybody understood that he had planned all the figures and bought the favors. Some received an impression that the ball was entirely managed by him, who was such a very great friend of the hostess's. Some even carried home an idea that the hostess never did anything without consulting him, and more often than not besought him to do it for her.
This sounds cruder than it actually was. Charlie was looking most handsome and high-bred. Animation shone from his eyes, his teeth, his skin, over which he now and then swept a fine white silk handkerchief. He danced devotedly every minute during which he was not engaged in making others dance. Mrs. Hawthorne, gazing after him with a benignant smile, was truly grateful to him for putting into her party so much "go." It was his atmosphere rather than his words—though he did drop words, but not many or really in bad taste—that made him appear the one indispensable person in the house.
Mrs. Foss stood near the central door with Mrs. Hawthorne, receiving. She had not omitted from her list one acquaintance in Florence of the suitable class. Everybody was there; the style of invitation-card sent had suggested a grand occasion.
All the persons she had seen at the Fosses on the first Friday evening at their house Mrs. Hawthorne saw again, and many more. Balm de Breze, with a gallantry of old style, bent his black-lacquer mustache over her glove. The dark Landini pressed her hand with a pinch the warmth of which pricked her attention, and she found his eyes fixed on her with more the air of seeing her than is common at a first meeting.
Suddenly her heart thumped like a school-girl's. Gerald was coming, and with him an officer who must surely be Manlio. She tried to keep down her emotion, but the pink of her face deepened, a trembling seized her smile.
The Italian was as white as paper, his mustache and brows made spots of ink on it; his eyes were as deep and still as wells in the night. She could hardly doubt that his heart was in a tumult, but he spoke without disaster to his voice, thanking her in a formal phrase. She perceived, from a distinct advantage over him in height, how faultlessly handsome he was in a quiet, unmagnetic way. Never had she seen anything to equal the whiteness of his teeth except her pearls in their black velvet case.
After having paid his duty to her, he remained for some minutes speaking with Mrs. Foss, who appeared as kind, while he appeared as calm and natural, as if time had moved back, and they were still at last spring and the beginning of his visits. Of all concerned Aurora was the least collected.
"I can't help it!" she murmured to Gerald, while the other two were talking together. "I'm all of a tremble. I feel as if I were Brenda; and at the same time I feel as if I were him—or he."
Mrs. Foss turned to them to say she believed everybody had arrived, and with Giglioli moved away from the door. Gerald asked Mrs. Hawthorne if they should waltz, but she refused, because she ought to be looking after the people who were not dancing and seeing that every one had a good time. She should dance only once that evening, she told him, and it should be with Mr. Foss, who had promised to dance at her party if she would promise to dance with him.
Mr. Foss was seen approaching, and Mrs. Hawthorne smiled and sparkled in anticipation of the jokes they would exchange on her fairy weight and his youthful limberness.
Gerald sent his eyes around the room to see if any one were free whom it would be a sort of duty to ask to dance. He did not look for pleasure from dancing, the less so that Charlie Hunt, on the perpetual jump, and dancing with a perfection almost unmanly, had brought the exercise into temporary discredit with him. Miss Madison was dancing, Miss Seymour was dancing, Leslie was dancing, Brenda—his eyes were unable to find. In a doorway, and not quite as festive in looks as the majority, which gave to the room the effect of an animated flower-bed, he perceived a figure in snuff-brown silk, just in front of which, soberly watching the dancers, was a little girl in a short dress of embroidered white, a blue hair-ribbon and blue enamel locket. At once dropping his search for a partner, Gerald went to join this pair, thinking, as he approached, that Lily without her spectacles was beginning to have a look of Brenda,—a Brenda with less beauty, but more originality; more—what could one call it?—geniality, perhaps.
"Oh, Gerald!"—the little girl caught his hand without ceasing for more than a second to watch the ball-room floor,—"I have promised to go home willingly at ten o'clock!" It was spoken in a gentle wail.
"My child," said Fraeulein, "you must begin to prepare, for I fear it cannot be far from ten."
"Oh, Fraeulein, don't keep talking about it! Please!"
"When you leave this pleasure, Lili, remember, there will be still that other pleasure of the long ride home in the night and the moonlight."
"Yes." Lily, glad again, turned wholly to Gerald, the music having stopped. "Mrs. Hawthorne told mother that if she would let me come I should be taken home in her own carriage, with all the furs around us and a hot water-box for our feet, so that we never could catch cold. Wasn't it sweet of her? And we've both already had ices and cakes, before anybody else, because she said we must. Don't you think she's sweet, Gerald?"
"Sweet as honey," he said.
"Oh, Gerald,"—Lily's tone was fairly lamentable,—"have you seen the baskets of favors that are going to be given away by and by? There are roses of red silk, and lilies of white velvet, and chocolate cigars, and fans, and bonbonnieres, and silver bangles! Then funny ones of little monkeys and ducks and things. And I have to go home willingly, cheerfully, promptly, at ten o'clock!"
"Lily, if any lady is so good and so misguided as to honor me with a favor, I will bring it to you in my pocket to-morrow or soon after, I promise."
"What hour is it, Herr Fane?" asked Fraeulein over Lily's head.
Gerald drew out his watch and hesitated, sincerely sorry.
"To be exact, it is three minutes and three quarters to ten," he said.
Lily's mouth dropped open, and out of the small dark hollow one could fear for a second that a cry of protest or revolt might come; but the very next moment it was seen that Lily had returned to be the best child in the world and the most honorable.
"Good night, Gerald!" she said, with a wistfully willing, cheerful, ready face. "You won't forget?"
He was left in the oval room, and as the dancers who had come in to occupy its seats seemed all to be in pairs, he remained aloof. He took the occasion to have a look at the panels, which he had not before seen, the tapestries, which were not tapestries, but paintings on rep. He remembered—the Fountain of Love, not Biblical.
The fountain, surely enough, spouted from a marble dolphin squeezed in the chubby arms of a marble Love, and was four times repeated, at different hours of the day and seasons of the year. In spring, at dawn, a maiden filled her cup at it. At noon, in summer, the same maiden and a youth drank from it with cheeks close together. In autumn, at sunset, the maiden, sadder of countenance, stared at the fountain, visibly wrapped in memories. In winter the fountain stood solitary and frozen, Cupid had a hood of snow, the purplish twilight landscape was drowned in melancholy.
Gerald's mind made an excursion from the things before him to the studio where those facile works of art had been produced. The place was imaginary, and the artist not altogether clear, but the features of the second figure which he saw, the visitor at the studio, were well-known to him, and the sentiments of the artist receiving the order to treat a subject in four large panels for a rich forestiera not difficult to estimate.
* * * * *
The ball had been raging, if one may so express it, for several hours, the feast was at its height, when Aurora, confused with the richness and multiplicity of her impressions, and aware of a happy fatigue, withdrew from her guests to be for a few minutes just a quiet looker-on. She chose as her retreat a spot at the curve of the stairs, where she felt herself in the midst of everything and yet isolated. Her back was toward the persons going up and down; she leaned on the sloping balustrade, and breathed and rested and hoped no one would notice her for a little while, all being delightfully engaged.
She could see a little way into the ball-room, where certain younger couples, mad for dancing, were making the most of the time when the floor was relatively empty, the supper-room being proportionately full. Supper over, the cotillion would begin. She could see Leslie, in Nile-green crape, eating an ice out in the hall with that American boy, the singer, whose conceit, by his looks, had not yet been made to totter. She could hear the merry sound of spoons and glasses, and knew what good things were being consumed. All the house was involved in festivity, and resounding with it. In the upstairs sitting-room were card-tables. In the improvised conservatory opposite one large dim lantern glowed softly amid palms and flowers. To Aurora every goose present that evening was a swan. There were frumpy dresses more than a few,—there always are,—and there was the usual proportion of plain girls and uninteresting men, but she did not see those. She saw a crowd more brilliant and beautiful and fit to be loved than had ever before been assembled beneath one roof. Her heart felt very large, very soft, very light.
All evening it had seemed to her rather as if she walked in a dream. More than ever now, as she stopped to take account of all the wonderfulness surrounding her, it felt to her like a dream; so that she said to herself, "This is I, Nell—is it possible? Is it possible that this is I—Nell?"
And no doubt because she had been too excitedly happy and was tired, and the time had come for some degree of reaction, her joy fell, withered like a child's collapsing pink balloon, when, contrasting the present with the past for the sake of seeing the things before her as more rarely full of wonder and charm, she saw those other things. Memories she did not willingly call up rose of themselves, and forced her to give them her attention in the midst of that scene of flowers, light, music. The brightness, the flavor, went out of these as if under an unkind magic.
"It's a wonder," she thought, "that I can ever be as happy as I am. I do wonder at myself how I can do it to rejoice."
But the next minute she was smiling again, sweetly, heart-wholly, forgetfully. She had caught sight of Gerald looking at her as if about to approach.
"Who are you going to dance the cotillion with?" she asked gaily.
"You, Mrs. Hawthorne, with your kind consent."
"No, I couldn't do it. I only dance a little bit, just what Estelle has taught me since we've been here. I don't keep step very well; I walk all over my partner's feet. Besides, it wouldn't do, because I've already refused to dance with Mr. Landini."
"Sit it out with me, then, I implore you, if you positively do not wish to dance."
"Oh, but you must dance! I want you to. I want to behold you all stuck over with favors."
"It's true that I must have a few favors for Lily; but couldn't a good fairy arrange it, and then we let the others heat themselves while we keep cool and rest? I feared a moment ago that you were feeling tired, Mrs. Hawthorne."
"Look!" she whispered, interrupting him.
He imperceptibly turned in the direction of her stolen glance. Two figures were ascending the opposite flight of stairs, looking at each other while they inaudibly talked: Brenda, in filmy white diversified by a thread of silver; Manlio, carrying over his arm, and in his absorption letting trail a little, a white scarf beautiful with silver embroideries; in his hand a white pearl fan. Brenda's face was angelic, nothing less. When the young and rose-lipped cherubim are full of celestial sensations and adoring, eternal thoughts, they must look as Brenda did at that moment. Manlio's head was so turned that his night-black hair alone was presented to our friends. Slowly the pair mounted and was lost to sight.
Neither Gerald nor Mrs. Hawthorne made any comment. Gerald, after a silence, spoke of Lily's increasing resemblance to her sister. Mrs. Hawthorne was reminded that they must go to select some favors for Lily, and led the way.
They sat together through the cotillion, and Gerald, because he had seen the shadow of sadness on Mrs. Hawthorne's face, tried more than usual to be a sympathetic companion, easy to talk to, easy to get on with. He was always quick to see such things.
No trace of it remained. Her dimples were in full play, but he found it according to his humor to continue uncritical, inexpressively tender, toward this big, bonny child who never curbed the expression of a complete kindness toward himself.
More interesting to them than any other dancers were naturally Brenda and Manlio, partners for the cotillion. Certainly the plot for giving those two a few beautiful last hours together was proving a success. Brenda was calmly, collectedly luminous; Manlio, uplifted to the point of not quite knowing what he did. Radiant and desperate, he looked to Gerald, who found his state explained by the facts as he knew them.
"Poor things! Poor dears!" he thought, with the cold to-morrow in view, yet retained his conviction of having done the unhappy lovers on the whole a good turn.
He had been glad to find the Fosses sharing his point of view that to forbid Giglioli a sight of Brenda before the long parting would have been unnecessarily cruel. Mrs. Hawthorne, it seemed to him, had lost sight of what was to follow. She was exclusively delighted with their joy of the evening, she gave no thought to their misery next day. It was amazing to him, the extent to which she had forgotten.
So he said aloud, "Poor things! Poor dears!" and discovered that it was not forgetfulness exactly in Mrs. Hawthorne, but that general optimism which insists on believing in a loophole of possibility through which things can slip and somehow turn out right after all.
* * * * *
The party was over. The musicians had laid their instruments in coffin-like black boxes and were getting into their overcoats. The candles were burned to the end, the flowers looked tired, the place all at once amazingly empty. The last half dozen people were standing and laughing with Mrs. Hawthorne and Miss Madison around Percy Lavin while he told a final good story when one of the guests who had departed some time before returned.
Mrs. Hawthorne caught sight of the figure in closed coat, tall hat, and white silk muffler as soon as it entered the house, for the group of laughers stood near the ball-room door, and this was only separated from the inner house door by the wide hall. Without waiting for the end of the comic story Mrs. Hawthorne hurried to the guest, whose reason for returning she wished to know, though it so easily might have been only his forgotten cane.
That it was nothing of the kind she at once perceived. He looked upset.
"May I speak with you a moment?" he asked at once.
They stepped into the nearest room, still brightly lighted, but deserted.
"What's the matter?" she inquired, prepared by his face for news of trouble.
"Mrs. Hawthorne, we've done it!" said Gerald. "Giglioli tells me that he's giving up the army, and Brenda has promised to marry him!" He was on the verge of laughing hysterically.
"Oh!" Mrs. Hawthorne paused to watch him, and wonder why they should not without further to-do rejoice and triumph. "Well? What's wrong with that?"
"Oh, Mrs. Hawthorne, it's deadly!" he exclaimed with conviction. "If it were a simple solution, why shouldn't it have been suggested before?"
"It did suggest itself to me, in the quiet of my inside, you know."
"But you, dear lady, can't be supposed to understand. Oh, it's either too, too beautiful, or else too, too bad! And in this dear world of ours the probability is that it's too bad. He was taken off his feet by his emotion; he offered her what he will feel later he had no right to offer—a good deal more than his life. But it shows, doesn't it, that he does immensely love her? To throw into the balance everything—his career, his family, his country—and offer them up! To cut his throat for a kiss."
"You're quite right; I can't understand," she hurried in. "What makes you say 'cut his throat'? Couldn't he go into some other business just as well as the army?"
"All in the world he's fitted for is the army. Do you see that beautiful fellow going to America, for instance, and earning a living as a teacher of Italian, or as the representative of some tobacco interest? There is no way of earning a proper living over here, you know. Oh, I'm afraid he will feel, when he wakes up, like a deserter toward his country and an ingrate toward his family and even toward Brenda like a misguider of her youth."
"But, look here, isn't there a chance that having each other will make up to them for everything else?"
"That of course was their sentiment at the moment of doing it. We did the work so well, Mrs. Hawthorne, that their passion, raised to a beautiful madness, would make them see anything as possible to be done so long as it gave them to each other, obviated the horrible necessity to part. Oh, it is touching, but dreadful! What were we dreaming? The thing I so greatly fear is that when he comes to himself he will feel dishonored, and Italians do not bear that easily, if at all."
"Now, see here, don't you go imagining things and worry. And don't you let that young man worry. He isn't leaving the army to-morrow or the day after, is he?"
"No. In the natural course of things, I suppose, it will take some time."
"Well, I don't at all relish, myself, the idea of seeing that beautiful fellow, as you say, in every-day clothes—the sort they wear over here—after seeing him all glorious in silver braid and stars. No. I just can't bear to think of him giving them up. At the same time I don't agree with you that he had better have given up his girl than them. And I don't believe she will mind about his clothes one way or the other."
"But there is his family, a thousand obligations—he spoke of them himself."
"Perhaps the Fosses, now this has happened and they see how much in earnest the blessed creatures are, will sell some of their stock in California gold-mines and afford the dowry you spoke of."
"But Giglioli will blush at this forcing of their hand."
"Now, see here, you keep that young man cool. He hasn't done anything to be ashamed of. Brenda knows her own mind, and I don't believe her father and mother would stand in the way of her marrying a tramp if he was honest and her heart set on him. You tell that young man, in your own way, to sit tight and put his trust in the Lord."
Gerald's nervous laughter for a moment got the better of him. He covered his face to check it, then, tearing away his hands, made the gesture of releasing a pack of tugging hounds too strong for him to hold. Let them be off and at the devil!
"I didn't come here looking for comfort, dear Mrs. Hawthorne. Your optimism is constitutional, you know, rather than enlightened. I merely came to tell my accomplice the result of our meddling with destiny. 'Accomplice' is a manner of speaking. Don't suppose I forget that I alone am to blame. Good night. I must go back to him where I left him, with his head among the stars and clouds, and his feet perhaps beginning to burn already with the heat of the nether fire. As you say, 'let's be cheerful, let's hope for the best!' Ha!"
Brenda, reaching home after the ball, had asked her parents to hear a thing she must tell them, and, very pale, informed them of the manner in which she had taken the direction of her life into her own hands. At the sight of their faces something had melted within her; she had trusted to them at last all that was in her heart, so that father and mother, greatly moved, felt as if they had found their child again rather than lost her. At the almost incredible spectacle of tears in her father's eyes Brenda had crept into his arms, against his breast, and lain there so still, so silent, that it seemed unnatural. They perceived that she had fainted.
She left for America on the date that had been set, but a term was fixed for her visit; April was to see her back in Florence.
Her engagement was not announced. Mr. Foss, talking of it with his wife, expressed liking and respect for their prospective son-in-law. His confidence in the man had been increased by an action that seemed to him quite in the American spirit. No doubt Giglioli would prove a good business man, just as he had been a good soldier, the chief requisites in all walks of life being a clear head, a heart in its place, and the will to work.
Mrs. Foss was secretly unhappy during these conversations. The model wife had never before kept anything from her husband nor taken any step without his sanction, and she was ashamed now of the duplicity she was forced to practice. She strengthened herself by the assurance that in so doing she was really sparing Jerome, saving him possible moments of indecision, or conflict with himself. She was saving Brenda from the same troubles, if not worse: such perhaps as seeing her brilliant hero made into an unsuccessful struggle-for-lifer. She, the mother, would swallow by her single self all the mental discomforts that might have been the general portion, and, nobody being any the wiser, shoulder hardily for their sakes the consciousness of an obligation which might to the others have poisoned a gift, if not made it impossible to accept. No member of her family, it seemed to Mrs. Foss, knew quite as well as she how simple, native, and without self-conceit was Aurora Hawthorne's generosity; so that taking from her was hardly different, in a sense, from giving her something. You did not have to pay with gratitude. You paid, first and last and all the time, with affection.
* * * * *
Gerald, who had seen as beset with difficulty the role of friend which he might be called upon to play, heard with relief that Giglioli had obtained leave of absence and gone to see his family. With Brenda over the seas, and Manlio in the Abruzzi, the subject of their attachment and future could fall a little into the background, crowded out by the nearer things.
The fact became of some consequence to Gerald that in his relation to Mrs. Hawthorne he was so largely a taker. He did not count as any return for her hospitalities the time he gave to sight-seeing with her and her friend; he was modest with regard to his own contributions.
He had in truth not desired to fall into Mrs. Hawthorne's debt. He would have liked best to keep away from her; but fate, likewise character, set snares for him. After he had stayed away for a certain length of time, the thought would rise to trouble him, "She will feel hurt," and all against the voice of good sense, such a reason as that had power with Gerald. He would then call, and her welcome would be so kind, her heartiness so warming, that he would stay to dinner, and promise to go somewhere with them on the following day, after which he would dine with them again.
So now the gentlemanly wish defined itself in him to show by some token that he did not take favors all as a matter of course.
He would have liked to make her an offering a little exquisite, a little rare, which she might recognize as possessing these points and accordingly prize. To bestow anything concrete would have been folly. A few possessions he had which he would have thought worthy of the acceptance of queens: a tear phial of true Roman glass, a Japanese print or two, a few coins that were old already when Christ was young. And he would have parted with any one of these treasures to Mrs. Hawthorne, though not wholly without a pang: first, because he liked her, and then because he had eaten as it seemed to him a good deal of her bread and syrup. But she would not have cared for these things; while bereaving himself, he would have enriched her not at all.
The duty of doing something for Mrs. Hawthorne's pleasure was felt even by Charlie Hunt, who took her to a concert. When Gerald heard of it, he searched more persistently and, fate aiding, found something which might give the lady amusement, he thought, and would certainly afford an opportunity that would hardly have come her way without his good offices.
The morning mail brought him a note relating to his project; he did not wait for afternoon to communicate its contents.
It was eleven when he rang at Mrs. Hawthorne's door. He had hardly finished asking the servant whether the signora were at home when he heard her voice upstairs, singing behind closed doors.
She had said so many times, when he went through the formality of having himself announced and waiting for permission to present himself, "Why didn't you come right up?" that this morning he said to the servant, "It imports not to advise her. I shall mount." Did the servant look faintly ironical, or did Gerald mistakenly imagine it?
The tune she sang sounded familiar. It must be a hymn, he decided, but could not remember what hymn, or even be sure it was one he had heard before, hymns are so much alike. He stopped at the sitting-room door and waited, listening to the big, free, untrained velvet voice, true throughout the low and medium registers, flat on the upper notes, the singer having carelessly pitched her hymn too high. He could hear the lines now, given with a swing that made them curl over at the ends, and with a punch on certain of the syllables, irrespective of their meaning:
"Feed me with—the heavenly manna In this barr—en wilderness; Be my shield, my sword, my banner, Be the Lord—my righteousness!"
When she came to the words,
"Death of death and hell's destruction,"
a bang and rattling ensued, as if some one were taking a practical hand in that work. The heavenly ferryman was thereupon besought with vigor to land her safe on Canaan's side, and the singing ceased.
Gerald stood waiting, if perchance there might be another verse, and wondered, while waiting, at the sounds he heard in the room, easy to recognize, but difficult to explain. When it seemed certain that the music was at an end, he, after hesitating for some minutes longer, gently tapped.
"Oh, come in!" was shouted from inside. "Entrez, will you? Avanti!"
He opened the door a little way, discreetly, and put in his head, ready to draw it back at once should he see his morning call as befalling inopportunely.
Aurora was so far from expecting him that for a second or two she actually did not recognize him, and waited to understand what was wanted of her. Her head was tied in a white cloth, her sleeves were turned back, she had on an apron, and she held a broom. The furniture was pushed together out of the corners, some of it covered with sheets; the windows were open. No mistake possible. Aurora was sweeping.
A burst of laughter rang; the broom-handle knocked on the floor.
"Yes, I'm sweeping," she cried. "Come right in! You find me practising one of my accomplishments. I can't play the piano, I can't speak languages, I can't paint bunches of flowers on black velvet; but I can sweep, I can cook, I can wash dishes—or babies, one just as well as the other, and I can nurse the sick."
"I am afraid I have come at an inconvenient moment."
"Not at all. I'm glad to see you. I was most through, anyhow."
She had pulled the cloth off her head, and was patting her hair before the glass. She turned down her cuffs, untied her apron, and came to shake hands, smiling as usual.
"You caught me," she said. "When I feel a certain way, I've got to work off steam, and there's nothing that does it like sweeping."
"I beg of you—I beg of you to let me close those windows for you!"
"All right. I'm awfully hot, but I guess the room's cold. We can have a fire in a minute. Everything's there to make it."
"I beg you will not trouble! I shall only remain a moment and leave you to finish."
"No, now, no; don't go and leave me. I was only sweeping to be doing something. To clean the room wasn't my real object. I took their work from Zaira and Vitale, who are the ones to do it usually, in a way that's new to me, with damp sawdust. It's nearly finished, anyhow. All I've got to do is fold the sheets and push things back into their places."
"Oh, Mrs. Hawthorne, please, please, allow me—"
He tried to help her, waking to the fact that she was as strong as he, if not stronger.
The room in a minute looked as usual, and she knelt in front of the hearth, piling up a kindling of pine-cones and little fagots, on which she laid a picturesque old root of olive-wood.
"You seem to be alone," he remarked.
"Yes; Estelle's gone out."
He was not sorry to hear it. Miss Madison, whom he entirely liked, affected him curiously, or, to express the matter more exactly, in a curious degree failed to affect him at all. Her personality did not bite on his consciousness. Unless some chance left them on each other's hands, he had difficulty in remembering her presence. It was not that she was colorless; not by any means. She obviously had character, brightness, individuality, even charm; but so far as he was concerned she might have had none of these. Particularly when her big friend was by Gerald ceased to see her. He recognized the danger of her negative effect on him, and often made a point of devoting to her a special amount of attention, being toward her of an unnatural amiability, trying thus to keep her ignorant of the extent to which she did not exist for him. Now he suddenly remembered that from the choice little treat provided for Mrs. Hawthorne Miss Madison had been left out—forgotten. He was dismayed. Then a pleasant side to the affair revealed itself by a dim gleam. He was mortified by his forgetfulness, but the ladies were after all not Siamese twins.
"You must wonder what brought me at this unusual time of day," he said.
"Any time's good that brings you. But what in particular was it?"
"I wanted to ask you to keep free next Saturday afternoon and, if you will be so good, spend it in part with me. I should like to take you to Mrs. Grangeon's."
"Don't you remember? Antonia! It is Antonia's real name. On the first evening of our acquaintance you had a good deal to say about her. If I remember rightly, you expressed then a desire to meet her—see her face."
"Yes, yes. Antonia, of course."
"She is a figure of importance here in Florence. She is in truth a very gifted woman—in her way, great, and of wide reputation. And she is clever, except in just some little spots. Geniuses, one has observed, are seldom quite free from such spots. She has kept herself very much to herself now for several years, so that an occasion to see her is grasped eagerly. This affair of hers on Saturday is the first thing of the kind in an age. Her villa at Bellosguardo is most interesting and full of interesting things. And the view from her terrace is worthy of a pilgrimage. You perceive, Mrs. Hawthorne, that I am doing what I can to faire valoir the scrap of entertainment I have to offer."
"I think it perfectly lovely of you! Of course I'll go, and delighted to. And see how it fits in—" She kindled to joyful enthusiasm. "We've just bought a lot of her books. We realized we'd got to have some books to make this room look finished off. We bought hers in paper covers and have had them beautifully bound. Just look here." She went to take a specimen from the bookcase, a white parchment volume with gold tooling, a crimson fleur-de-lys painted on the front cover. "Aren't they lovely? An idea! We'll take some of them up to her and ask her to write her name in them. Wouldn't that be flattering?"
"Ye ... es."
"I've been trying to read some of it over since these came home from the binder's. My! Aren't those people of hers wonderful—where you'd think the ladies never could have a stomache-ache nor the gentlemen a corn!"
"I hope Miss Madison will not think I forgot her," he disingenuously said, "when in replying to Mrs. Grangeon's invitation I begged permission to bring you, and that she will do me the honor some day very soon—"
"Oh, Estelle won't mind!"
The mention of Estelle seemed to change the color of Mrs. Hawthorne's thoughts, casting a shadow over them.
"Estelle and I had a spat this morning," she told him.
"That's why I was sweeping and why she's gone for a walk by herself."
"I'm so sorry!" was all he found to say.
"It doesn't amount to anything," she cheered him. "We've had times of quarreling all our lives, and we've known each other since we were children. Her aunt and my grandmother had houses side by side in the country; there was just a fence between our yards. That's how we first came to be friends. All our lives we've had the way of sometimes saying what the other doesn't like. And do you know what's always at the bottom of it? That each one thinks she knows what would be most for the other's good to do, and we get so mad because the other won't do what we ourself think would be best for her! Just as some people abuse you because you're a pig, we as likely as not abuse the other because she isn't a pig. One of the biggest fights we ever had was because once late at night, when she was dead tired, tired as a yellow dog, I wanted her to sit still and let me pack for her, or, anyhow, let me help her pack. And she said I was as tired as she,—as if that was possible!—and if I didn't go to bed and get some rest myself and let her alone to get through her packing as she pleased if it was daylight before she finished she should have a fit. And from one thing to another we went on getting madder and madder till we said things you would have thought made it impossible for us ever to speak to each other again. But the first thing next morning, when we opened our eyes, we just looked at each other and began to laugh. Another time we fought like cats and dogs because I wanted to give her something and she refused to take it."
"I don't call those quarrels, Mrs. Hawthorne."
"You would if you could hear us; you would have if you could have heard us this morning. And it was only a little one. You see, two people aren't best friends for nothing. It gives you a sort of freedom; you aren't a bit afraid. And when you know it's only the other's good you have at heart, it makes you awfully firm and fast-set in your point of view. I don't mind telling you that I'm always the one in the wrong."
"Of course I am. But I like to have my way, even if it's wrong. Hear me talk! How that does sound! And I was brought up so strict! But it's so. I want to do as I please. I want to have fun. It began this morning with Hat saying I spent too much money."
"Did she say that? How unreasonable, how far-fetched!"
"'What's the good of having it,' I said, 'if I can't spend it?'
"'You'd buy anything,' she said, 'that anybody wanted you to buy, if it was a mangy stuffed monkey. It isn't generosity,' she said; 'it's just weakness.'
"'Oh, suck an orange!' I said, 'Chew gum! It's anything you choose to call it. But when a thing takes my fancy, I'm going right on to buy it. And if it enables a greasy little Italian to buy himself and his children more garlic,' I said, 'that's not going to stop me,' I said. I don't mind showing you"—she dropped her selections from the morning's dialogue—"the thing I bought which started our little discussion. The artist who made it brought it himself to show me."
She went to take the object referred to from her desk, and held it before him, examining it at the same time as he did.
"Do you see what it is? Can you tell at once?"
"H-m, I'm not sure. Is it intended for a portrait of Queen Margherita?"
"Right you are! Of course that's what it is. It's a picture of the queen, done by hand with pen and ink; but that's not all. If you should take a magnifying glass, you would see that every line is a line of writing—fine, fine pen-writing, the very finest possible, and if you begin reading at this pearl of her crown, and just follow through all the quirligiggles and everything to the end, you will have read the whole history of Italy in a condensed form! Isn't it wonderful? Don't you think it extraordinary, a real curiosity? Don't you think I was right to buy it?"
"My opinion on that point, dear Mrs. Hawthorne, would rather depend on what you paid for it."
"Oh, would it?" She lost impetus, and gave a moment to reflection. "Well, I shall never know, then, for I'm not going to tell you. One's enough blaming me for extravagance."
"My dear Mrs. Hawthorne, pray don't suppose me bold enough to—"
"Oh, you're bold enough, my friend. But while I like my friends to speak their minds, I've had just enough of it for one day, d' you see? I've had enough, in fact, to make me sort of homesick."
She looked it, and not as far as could be from tears. The small vexation of his failure to think her treasure worth anything she might have paid for it, the intimation that he might join the camp of the enemy in finding her extravagant, had acted apparently as a last straw.
"Oh, Mrs. Hawthorne, I beg of you not to feel homesick!" he cried, compunctious and really eager. "It's such a poor compliment to Florence and to us, you know, us Florentines, who owe you so much for bringing among us this winter your splendid laughter and good spirits and the dimples which it does us so much good to see."
"No," she said ruefully, "you can't rub me the right way till I'm contented here as I was yesterday. Florence is all right, and the Florentines are mighty polite; but—" She looked at the fire a moment, while he tried, and failed, to find something effectively soothing to say. "In the State of Massachusetts there's a sort of spit running into the sea, and on a sand hill of this there's a little shingled house that never had a drop of paint outside of it nor of plumbing inside; but there's an old well at the back, deep as they dig them, with, on the hottest day, ice-water at the bottom. The yard is pretty well scratched up by the hens, but there are a few things in it you can't kill out—some lilacs and some tiger-lilies and a darling, ragged, straggling old strawberry-bush. Outside the fence, hosts of Bouncing Bets—you know what they are, don't you? The front door has some nice neat blinds, always closed, like those of the best room, except for weddings and funerals; but the back door is open, and when you sit on the step you can look off down an old slope of apple-orchard and over across it at the neighbors' roofs and chimneys. And there, Geraldino, is where Auroretta would like to be."
He had the impulse to reach out and touch the ends of his fingers to her hand, fondly, as one might do to a child, but he prudently refrained. His eyes, however, dwelled on her with a smile that conveyed sympathy. He said, after her, amusedly:
"After I've been bad," she said, "I always am blue."
* * * * *
But within the hour he had come near quarreling with her, he also, and on more than one score.
It began with his making a pleasant remark upon her voice, which seemed to him worth cultivating. She brushed aside the idea of devoting study to the art of singing.
"But," she said, "Italo has brought me some songs. He plays them over and shows me how to sing them. We have lots of fun." To give him an example, she broke forth, adapting her peculiarly American pronunciation to Ceccherelli's peculiarly Italian intonations, "'Non so resistere, sei troppo bella!'"
Gerald winced and darkened.
"Then there's this one," she went on, "'Mia piccirella, deh, vieni allo mare!' Do you want to hear me sing it like Miss Felixson, together with her dog, which always bursts out howling before she's done? I've heard them three times, and can do the couple of them to a T."
"Please don't!" he hurriedly requested. "I hope," he added doubtfully, "that you won't do it to amuse any of your other friends, either." As she did not quickly assure him that she neither had done, nor ever would dream of doing, such a low thing, he went on, with the liberty of speech that amazingly prevailed between them: "Extraordinary as it seems, you would be perfectly capable of it. And it would be a grave mistake."
"I've done it for Italo when he was playing my accompaniment. For nobody else."
"Mrs. Hawthorne, if that little man has become your singing-master, will you not intrust me with the honorable charge of likewise teaching you something? No, not painting. I should like to drill you in the pronunciation of that little man's name. It is Ceccherelli. Cec-che-rel-li. Cec-che-rel-li."
She shook her head.
"No use. I've got accustomed to the other now."
He felt a spark dropped among the recesses where his inflammable temper was kept.
"Before you know it the fellow will be calling you Aurora!" he said, repressing the outburst of his wrath at this possibility.
"He does, my friend," she answered him quietly. "He can't say Hawthorne. Do you hear him saying Hawthorne? He calls me Signora Aurora."
"Then why not call him Signor Italo?"
"At this time of day? It would be too formal. He would wonder what he'd done to offend me."
Gerald was reminded that since Christmas Ceccherelli had been wearing, instead of his silver turnip, a fine gold watch, her overt gift and his frank boast, which he conspicuously extracted from its chamois-skin case every time he needed to know the hour.
"Mrs. Hawthorne," said Gerald, "you have repeatedly said that you have what you call lots of fun with Ceccherelli. Would you mind giving me an idea of what the fun consists in? I wish to have light—that I may do the man justice. Left to myself, I should judge him to be the dullest, commonest, cheapest of inexpressibly vulgar, insignificant, pretentious, ugly, and probably dishonest, little men." The adjectives came rolling out irrepressibly.
"Perhaps he is," Aurora said serenely; "but haven't you noticed, Stickly-prickly, that about some things you and I don't feel alike? Italo plays the piano in a way that perfectly delights me, he's good-hearted, and he makes me laugh. Isn't that enough?"
"In short, you like him. You like so many people, Mrs. Hawthorne, and of such various kinds, that though one is bound to be glad to be among your friends, one needn't—need one?—feel exactly flattered."
She seemed to consider this, but instead of taking it up, went on with the subject of Italo.
"He entertains me. He knows all about everybody in Florence and tells me."
"He gossips, you mean."
Again she considered a moment before going on.
"Funny, when I don't know the people, or just know them by sight, and they and the life are all so foreign and apart from me, gossip about them doesn't seem the same as gossip at home. It's more like Antonia's novels, condensed and told in the queerest English! It was some time before I could make out what he meant when he said two gentlemen had fought a duel because one of them had found the other nasconding in his garden-house. The one thus found obstinated himself, says Italo, to maintain that he had come to make a copy of the architectural design over the door. But as he didn't seem to have any pencil—"
"Mrs. Hawthorne, how can you be amused by such disgusting stuff?"
She gazed at him inquiringly, with very blue eyes and a look of innocence, real or put on, then laughed.
"I am, just. I can't tell you the how of it. Do you know Italo's sister Clotilde?"
"I have not that advantage, no."
"You soon will have, if you care for it, for she's coming to live with us."
"Yes, she's coming to keep house. She speaks English quite well, because she's had so much to do with English and Americans, being a teacher of Italian and French. It began with Italo wanting us to take lessons of her. But, bless you, I don't want to study! I can pick up all I need without. We said, however, 'Bring her to see us.' And he did. She's real nice."
"Does she resemble her brother?"
"In some ways. I've an idea, though, that you'd like her better than you seem to do him. I believe we shall be very well satisfied with her, and shall save money. Since we seem to have got on to the subject of money to-day: Luigi, the butler, who has everything under him now, Estelle says is a caution to snakes, the way he robs us. Now, we're easy-going and, I dare say, fools; but not darn, darn fools. It's a mistake to think we wouldn't see a thing big's a mountain, and that you could cheat us the way that handsome, fine-mannered, dignified villain Loo-ee-gy thinks he can. So we're going to put in his place a nice woman who is, in part, our friend, and will care to see that we're dealt fairly with. Clotilde doesn't seem to mind giving up her lessons to come and be a sort of elegant housekeeper for us."
"Charlie Hunt is disgusted about it, because when we complained of Luigi before him, he said he would find us exactly the right person to take his place. But, you see, we didn't wait. I don't see that we were bound to. What do you think?"
"It is a case, dear Mrs. Hawthorne, where I must not allow myself to say what I think."
"Personally, I must say I was rather glad to have Clotilde step in as she did, because I don't mind telling you—you won't tell anybody else?—I find just the least little bit of a disposition in that young man Charlie to run things in this house. D'you know what I mean? I suppose it's the way he's made. He has been awfully kind, and helped a lot in all sorts of ways, and I like him ever so much; but I was glad to check him just a little, and put who I pleased over my own servants, and then go on just as good friends with him as ever."
"Mrs. Hawthorne, why don't you make Mrs. Foss your adviser in all such matters? She is so kind always and of such good counsel. It would be so much the safest thing."
"Of course; but it was she who found Luigi for us, you see. She can't always know. As far as Charlie Hunt is concerned, I don't want you to think that we think any less of him than before. He's good and kind as can be, and does ever so many nice things for us. We were at his apartment the other day, where he had a tea-party expressly for us, with his cousins there, and Mr. Landini and two or three others. And then when he heard me say I like dogs he promised to give me a dog, one of those lovely clown dogs,—poodles,—with their hair cut in a fancy pattern, when he can lay his hand on a real beauty."
"Mrs. Hawthorne"—Gerald almost lifted himself off his seat with the emphasis of his cry,—"Don't let him give you a dog!"
She looked at him in amazement.
"Why, what's wrong?"
"Don't! don't! Can't you see that you must not let him give you a dog?"
"No, I can't. Why on earth?"
"After what you said a few minutes ago," he stammered, feeling blindly for reasons, "which shows that you have something to complain of in his conduct toward you, you ought not to allow him to give you a dog. A dog—you don't understand, and I can't make you. It will be too awful!"
"You surely are the queerest man I have ever known," she said sincerely.
To which he did not reply.
He restrained himself from blurting out that Charlie Hunt, for such and such reasons, could never deserve the extreme privilege of giving her a dog. Leslie had once casually spoken the true word about Charlie. "Charlie has no real inside," she had said, and continued, nevertheless, to like him well enough. He was young, handsome, in his way attractive. Most people liked him to just that extent—well enough; few went beyond, unless early in the acquaintance. He so systematically did what would be most useful to himself that it was difficult to preserve illusions about his powers of devotion or unselfishness. He had lived as one of the family with his aunt and cousins till he found himself desiring an increase of personal liberty; then an occasion presenting itself to make a really good arrangement with an Italian family of decent middle class with their best rooms to let, he had set up bachelor quarters, and ceasing to be an inmate of his aunt's house, retained unusually little sense of tie with it.
"Charlie might be nicer about going to places with us," Francesca openly grumbled, "seeing he's the nearest we've got to a brother."
All this was formlessly in Gerald's mind—this and much more—when his spirit groaned that Charlie should be giving Aurora a dog.
Mrs. Hawthorne was looking at him, trying to make him out. She could not. One thing, however, was plain, and it being so plain simplified all. He felt actual pain because Charlie Hunt was going to give her a dog. The wherefore it was vain to seek. But she had no desire to give pain of any kind, even by way of teasing him, to this funnily sensitive fellow whose shoulders looked so sharp under his coat.
"All right," she said. "If he says anything more about it, I'll tell him I've changed my mind and don't want a dog. Are you satisfied? And then if you won't tell me what the objection is to my having one, I shall have to sit down and try to guess."
Gerald, upon obtaining so easily what he had wanted apparently to the point of tragedy, looked sheepish, ashamed of himself. His thanks were given in a slowly returning smile.
"I shouldn't think it would be so difficult," he said.
Antonia had been very friendly to Gerald at the period of their first acquaintance. She had cared for his painting, specimens of which had come to her notice through Amabel Van Zandt, and distinguished the at that time very young artist to the extent of inviting him to her villa, showing interest in his talent and future, making him talk. From one year to the next, other things had taken up her mind to his exclusion. He had continued, however, to pay his respects, if she were at home, at least once in the season, and retained gratitude toward her, along with the presumption that he could never be to her the same exactly as the first-come outsider. He remembered At Homes of hers attended in the old days, and saw every reason why Mrs. Hawthorne should enjoy one of these, none why it should not enjoy her. On the contrary. Making full allowance for the fact that he had grown accustomed to her manner and mode, Mrs. Hawthorne had yet seemed to him lately of a circumspection not to be surpassed. When alone with him and Estelle, she was one person; when in company, she was another, not a little like Mrs. Foss, retaining enough of her own irrepressible self to seem just acceptably original. Antonia, the novelist, declared a fondness for people out of the ordinary, the conventional. Gerald thought the American might interest her. But if she did not, little depends, at a reception, upon the hostess being charmed with individual guests; he still believed that Aurora would have a good time—he meant to ensure her doing this.
Aurora had, as she described it, dressed herself to kill, and was looking, Estelle told her, perfectly stunning. She had on velvets and furs, pearls and plumes. She had wished at one and the same time to make Gerald Fane proud of her and do honor to Antonia's party. Concealed in her muff was a white parchment volume—muffs were small in those days. A similar volume had been stuffed into each of Gerald's overcoat pockets.
Gerald, as has been said, remembered At Homes of Antonia's, and had in mind an image of what he might expect to see.
He perceived at once that to-day all was different. This was immensely choice, the most so afforded by Florence. That he had been invited showed Antonia's estimate of him still as a person of artistic significance; also, he modestly decided, the difficulty one had to make up an assemblage solely of notabilities. Her permission to bring a friend showed flattering faith in his taste.
Persons were there whom one but seldom saw anywhere; the persons whom one saw everywhere were conspicuously absent. Among a majority of English, there was a sprinkling of Italian nobility, mostly older people. Antonia had lived for many years in Florence. There was a very able historian, allied to the English through his wife; there was an old General of the wars of liberation; there was a Church dignitary of infinite elegance and high rank: all serious people who did not go to teas, and whose coming to this one was a compliment to Antonia. The exceptional woman's right to the like homage was established; her celebration of Italy was by Italy, in the persons of such sons of hers as got an inkling of their debt, gracefully acknowledged.
Gerald, entering the large drawing-room with Aurora, at first wondered, then understood. The interesting Princess Rostopchine, on a visit to Florence, was present—woman of accomplishments in every branch—painter, sculptress, musician, author; a beauty into the bargain, and lady-in-waiting for many years to a queen.
She was no longer in the freshness of youth; her beauty had been left a little bony, a little fatigued and bloodless; her eyelids drooped over the brilliant intelligence of her eyes. The poetry of her looks was increased by her costume. In wise disdain of the fashion, she went robed rather than dressed; her things clung and trailed and undulated; they were gray as cobwebs, dim as pressed orchids. She was as fascinating as at any time in her life—perhaps more so, because she cared to be.
Antonia, who had made her acquaintance at Aix-les-bains, was under her spell. The reception was given to honor her, rather than to enable Antonia, as Gerald had at first supposed, to see her friends again after several years of absence and neglect.
A niece of Antonia's received, and invited guests to be refreshed with tea, while Antonia and the Princess sat side by side, and now talked together, now with others, who of themselves approached, or whom Antonia invited to join them. The conversation was part of the time in French, which Antonia spoke fluently, but for the greater part in English, which the princess spoke well, as Russians speak every language.
Gerald was watching for the favorable moment to present Aurora; they therefore stood within earshot. While he talked to keep her diverted, he was aware that his companion less than half listened to him, absorbed in Antonia and the princess.
A princess and a famous writer! Aurora had never set eyes on a princess before, nor, to her knowledge, on an author. They hypnotized her, those two. Their conversation was far beyond Leslie's, she did not understand any of it, though every syllable reached her ear. The marked Englishness of Antonia's speech caused an almost necessity in Aurora to say the words after her, echoing their peculiarity. Her lips unconsciously moved.
Aurora's eyes were busy as well as her ears. Antonia was clad in a tea-gown—Aurora thought it was a wrapper. The tea-gown had long lain in a chest, while Antonia was on her travels, and the great woman's eyes, fixed on more important things, had not perceived when it was taken out for her wear to-day that it was crushed and rumpled. Aurora believed it had been recovered from the ash-can, and her breast was filled with awe. It was with unqualified and childlike admiration that she gazed at the two women whose soaring superiority she unenviously felt.
As it seemed unbefitting as yet to interrupt their conversation, Gerald looked around him in search of acquaintances whom to present to Aurora while waiting.
Balm de Breze first met his eye—the vicomte was Antonia's landlord—but Gerald discriminated against him. He next spied Hamilton Spencer and Carlo Guerra, both genial fellows, left Aurora's side for an instant and brought them up.
Aurora called back her attention and gave it to them. A certain success of smiles and bright eyes she was almost sure to have, with men. Gerald went off to get her some tea, took it to her, and finding her in the midst of a sufficiently lively time with her new acquaintances, returned to Antonia's niece at the tea-table for a chat and cup of tea. While hearing the news from this unassuming elderly girl, he could keep an eye on Mrs. Hawthorne at a distance, and catch any facial signal for help.
Aurora was drinking her tea, holding her cup like a real lady, with her little finger delicately curled back. Aurora's figure stood out from among those surrounding her like a thing of a different make, an earthen jar among glass vases, a Swede among Japanese.
Aurora was out of place, it could not be blinked; and that she was so visible, in her able-bodied comeliness, her supremacy of dimples, her extremely good corset, increased the offense. So did also the native assurance of her eye—which had something at all times of a jovial sea-captain, with his foot on his own deck.
Gerald looked from her to Antonia, slightly uneasy. Antonia's face had characteristics of a man's, but along with them indications above all feminine. Power and caprice in the great woman went linked. He saw her while listening to the princess turn her head toward the quarter of the room tinctured by Aurora's unmodified presence, as if taking account of the voice and accent of the stranger in her house.
This seemed to him his opportunity, and excusing himself from Miss Grangeon, he started toward Aurora.
"There are more ways than one of skinning a cat!" came floating to him in Aurora's deep-piled voice, borne on her frank laugh, as he approached.
He found her having a very good time, but ready to call an end to it and go to be presented.
"I'm awfully nervous!" she whispered to Gerald, but that was a manner of speech. Aurora's nerves were author-proof. She meant that she was impressed by the greatness of the moment. She picked up her three books from the table near by, held them with her left arm so that her right hand might be free to clasp Antonia's, and, smiling as a basket of chips—thus did she later describe herself—advanced toward the crowning honor of the day.
Antonia saw her coming and narrowed her eyes the better to see. Antonia's face, at no time in her life soft, was as much like granite at this moment as it had the moment before been like old white soap; her eyes, fixed on the approaching pair, turned stonily unseeing.
Gerald bravely went through with the introduction, and tried to warm the atmosphere with winged words. Aurora's hand was all ready to shake.
Antonia's hand did not go forth to meet it, but Aurora, elate and overflowing, was not put off by this.
"I can never tell you"—she gushed, "how pleased I am to meet you—how honored I feel. Nor can I ever tell you how perfectly wonderful I think your books. Perfectly wonderful.... Perfectly wond ... Perf ... See what I've brought. These three that I'm going to leave for you to write in, if you'll be so very kind. It would increase their value for me I never can tell you how much."
"My dear Madam," said Antonia, "I never inscribe a book that I have not myself presented. I am not acquainted with the phrase in which it is done. The value of my autograph will be enormously increased hereafter for collectors by the fact that when I receive requests for it I drop them into the waste-basket. Yes, I merely keep the stamps."
"Oh!" more faintly.
"Yes!" more firmly.
Turning her back to Aurora, Antonia once more addressed Princess Rostopchine. "Vera Sergeievna, you were saying...."
The only sign Aurora gave of being flabbergasted was forgetting the books she held. They slid with noise to the floor. As Gerald picked them up, "Did I ever tell you"—she asked him chattily, and leisurely moved on,—"about the time I stood on the sidewalk to see the procession go by, in Boston, when we commemorated Bunker Hill?" And she went on with a favorite reminiscence: how she had held on to her inch of standing-room, in spite of a fat and puffing man, a gimlet-elbowed woman, and a policeman.
* * * * *
When they were in her coupe, smartly bowling toward town, silence fell. Gerald's brow was black, his eyes were steely.
"Mrs. Hawthorne," he jerked out, "I am not going to express myself on the experiences of this afternoon. Words could not do them justice, and I am not cool enough to trust myself. But I wish to apologize to you most humbly for my egregious, my imbecile mistake."
"Don't you care, Geraldino! Don't you care one bit! Bless your dear heart, I'm not touchy!" Aurora said cheerily, and, not resisting as he had recently done the impulse to comfort his friend by a caressing touch, gave his hand as tight a squeeze as her snug new glove permitted. "Nasty old thing! What does it matter? But"—her eyes rounded at the amazed recollection,—"that I should have lived, I—me—my size—to feel like a fly-speck on the wall! It did beat everything! Yours truly, F. S. W.! Fly Speck on the Wall!"
She was lost for a moment in the consideration of herself reduced to a negligible dot, and Gerald, too angry to talk, thought hydrophobia thoughts in silence. In these he was disturbed by the sound of her trying in a murmur to speak like Antonia, and hitting off the Englishwoman's pronunciation rather successfully.
"Deah Madam! I nevah, nevah inscrrribe a book.... I drap them into the baaahsket. Yesss. I marely keep the stamps."
The house where Gerald lived was the same one he had lived in since the days of Boston and Charlestown. His mother, coming to Florence with her two children, a boy of ten, a girl of seven, had needed to look for a modest corner in which to build their nest. The income of which she found herself possessed after settling up her husband's affairs, even when supplemented by the allowance made her by his family, so little permitted of extravagance that she chose the topmost story of the house in Borgo Pinti, with those long, long stairs that perhaps had contributed to keep Gerald's legs thin.
Its street door was narrow, its entrance-hall dark; the stone stairs climbed from darkness into semi-darkness, reaching the daylight when they likewise reached the Fanes' landing. But the old house was not without dignity; all three loved it.
As you entered the Fanes', there was another dark hall, very long, running to right and left. One small window opposite, on an inner court, was all that lighted it. This hall grew darker still, as well as narrower, after turning a corner to the left; then it turned to the right, and was lighter. At the end of it was a window from which, if you bent out, you saw far below you a garden.
The rooms, without being lofty and vaulted, like those on the ground and first floors, were pleasantly high, and paved with brick tiles. From the one large interior room a window-door opened on to a terrace in the court—a deep brick terrace with a broad ledge on which stood a row of flower-pots. When water was wanted, you opened a little door in the kitchen wall and let your copper urn down, down, down into mossy-smelling blackness; you heard a splash and gurgle, and after proper exertions got it back brimming.
The Italian-ness of it all captivated the mother, who had been drawn to this dot on the map, where she was told one could live well at less expense than in the United States, by the lure of the idea of Italy. She was very humbly an artist. She had given drawing lessons to young ladies in an elegant seminary, and, when approaching middle age, married the father of one of these, a troubled, conscientious man whom the cares of an entangled and disintegrating business kept awake at night. When his need for feminine sympathy ceased, and administrators settled in their summary way the questions that had furrowed his brow, his widow's wish to start life anew far from the scene of her worries had led to the balmy thought of Italy—Italy, where were all the wonders which had most glamour for her fancy.
She had loved it in an undiminished way to the end, had never really desired to go home, though she spoke of it sometimes when the chill of the stone floors and walls shook her fortitude, and the remembrance of furnace heat, gas-light, hot water on tap, glowed rosy as a promise of eternal summer. The children, however, were taught in their respective schools that artificial heat is insalubrious; they had Italian ideas and chilblains; not on account of any creature comfort that they missed would Florence have been changed back for Charlestown.
In her picturing of days far ahead Mrs. Fane certainly saw Lucile, an accomplished young lady, receiving tributes of attention in the drawing-rooms of home; and Gerald, a young man of parts, finding recognition and fortune among his countrymen. To go home eventually was among her cloudy plans.
But Lucile died at sixteen, without adequate cause, one almost would have said. She merely had not the ruggedness, the resistance, needed to go on living among the rough winds of this world. The mother, a creature of old-fashioned gentleness and profound affections, survived her by only a few years.
A business matter then obliged Gerald to go to America, and had he liked the place, he might have taken up his abode there. It affected him like vinegar dropped in a wound, like street din heard from a hospital bed. He turned back, and the long stairs to his empty dwelling were dear and sweet to him on the day of his return.
This, then, had remained his home. His needs were simple, and he could live without applying himself to uncongenial work, though the allowance had been stopped, and the income, as Leslie had said, was incredibly small. The good Giovanna, who had been his mother's servant, stayed on with her signorino, and economized for him; the wages of an Italian servant were in those days no extravagance. He had no pleasures that cost money; he neither traveled nor went to fine restaurants. He wore neat, old well-brushed clothes, went afoot, gave to the poor single coppers. But he had liberty, worked when he pleased and as he pleased; he was content to be poor, so long as his poverty did not reach the point where it involves cutting a poor figure. Giovanna, prouder than her master, disliked the thought of far cattiva figura even more than did he, and was careful in her household management to keep up a certain style, never forgetting the sprig of parsley on the platter beside the single braciolina.
At one period he had contemplated a change in his mode of living, had dreamed of entering the contest for laurels and gold, so as to afford a more appropriate setting for the beauty of his charmer. The Charmer had attained without need of him the setting she craved, and Gerald went on climbing his long stairs, painting in his so personal and unpopular way, and at night reading by light of a solitary lamp the choice and subtle masterpieces of many literatures.
* * * * *
"My land! shall we ever get to the top?" whispered Aurora to Estelle as, one behind the other, sliding their hands along the wall, they felt with their feet for the steps that led to Gerald's door. "He told us they were long, and he warned us they were dark, but this!... I wonder why they don't have a lamp going, or something."
"Because there isn't any image of the Virgin," said Estelle, lightly. "It's our just having come in from the sunshine makes it seem dark. It's getting lighter. Cheer up! It's good for you."
"It'll make me lose three pounds, I shouldn't wonder."
They spoke in whispers, because when they had pulled the bell-knob and the door had swung open, a voice from incalculable altitudes had shouted, "Chi e?" They had answered, as instructed, "Amici," and now they pictured somebody listening to their shuffling ascent.
At the top, in fact, stood Giovanna, who regarded them with an eye the color of strong black coffee and said, "Riverisco!"
The small old woman had a thin, bronze Dantesque face, molded by a thousand indignations—all directed against proper objects of indignation—to a settled severity; a face of narrow concentrated passions and perfect fidelity and a preference for few words. The friendly smiles of Aurora and Estelle produced in her a relenting. Courtesy here demanded a pleasant look, and Giovanna was always courteous. She stood aside for Gerald, who came to the very door to welcome these ladies.
The guests were now assembled. One of them was staying with Gerald—Abbe Johns, who had come for a few days from Leghorn, where he lived. The others were Mrs. Foss and Miss Seymour.
What had been in Mrs. Fane's time the drawing-room had since become also a studio. The landlord had permitted his tenant to increase the light by extending the windows across the street-side wall. Beyond that, there were as few signs about of the art-trade as Gerald had affectations of the artist. The model-stand supporting books and things appeared like a low table; easel, canvases, portfolios, all the littering properties of a painter, had been shoved for the occasion into the next room, a spacious glory-hole which Giovanna did not permit to become dusty beyond the decent.
The result of removing, first, many of the things that made the room a drawing-room, then, most of the things that made it a studio, left the place rather bare. It was according to Gerald's taste: few things in it, each having the merit of either beauty or interest, else the excuse of utility.
Mrs. Foss had waited for Aurora's arrival to make the tea. The feast was very simple. Gerald offered what his mother had used to offer. Giovanna cut the bread-and-butter as that genteel lady had taught her, and continued to buy the plum-cake at the same confectioner's.
Aurora had come in from the sunshine and cold with January roses in her cheeks and exhilaration in her blood. At sight of her beloved Mrs. Foss she laughed for joy. She rejoiced also to see Miss Seymour, who was one of her "likes," and she was immensely interested to meet the abbe, whom she knew to be Gerald's best friend, even as Estelle was hers. She loved Gerald for having just these people to meet them at tea, the ones he himself thought most of. She felt sweetly flattered at being made one of a company so choicely wise and good.
But the result was not exactly fortunate for the gaiety of the little party, if Aurora's laugh had been counted upon to enliven it. Far from shy though she was, she developed a disinclination to-day to speak. She was impressed by the abbe, for whom her conversation did not seem to her good enough.
The young priest, a convert to Catholicism, was Gerald's age, and had it not been for his collar, the cut of his coat, would have looked like a not at all unusual Englishman with blue eyes, curly black hair, a touch of warm color in his shaven cheeks. Unless you sat across the tea-table from him and now and then, while he quietly and unassumingly talked, met his eyes.
Some persons said that he looked ascetic, some austere, some angelic. Mrs. Foss, not finding the right adjective for his mixture of poise and humanity, was content to call him charming. Gerald, who had known him when they were Vin and Raldi to each other and equally far from entering the Church, regarded him as simply the nicest fellow he knew. Aurora had no definition for him, but did not feel disposed to ripple on as usual in his hearing. Yet she would have liked to make friends with him, too. She would have said to him some such thing as, "What are the thoughts you have, which make you so calm, deep inside? But I know. We learned them at our mother's knee, but in the fury of living, having fun, getting on, we never revisit the chamber where they are kept. You live in it."
He was talking with Estelle like any other man whose conversation should not contain the faintest element of gallantry, and Estelle was talking to him with an ease that Aurora marveled at. Aurora marveled how Estelle could know, or seem to know, a lot of things which she had never before given sign of caring about. If the two of them were not conversing upon the symbolism of religious art! Having finished his tea, the abbe went to fetch a book from Gerald's shelves, which he knew as well as his own, and Estelle was shown reproductions of carvings on old cathedrals.
Mrs. Foss, who had been talking of the Carnival now beginning, telling Aurora about corsi and coriandoli of the past as compared with the poor remnants of these customs, and describing the still undiminished glories of a veglione, perceiving finally that the usually merry lady was on her best behavior to the point of almost complete taciturnity, from necessity addressed herself more directly to Miss Seymour, who shared the sofa with her; and from talking of veglioni the two slid into talking of Florentine affairs more personal.
The task of entertaining Mrs. Hawthorne thus devolving upon Gerald, he took it up in a way that flatteringly presupposed in her an interest in general questions. His manner seemed to her very formal. She forgot that, innocent as their relations were, he yet could not before people speak to her with the lack of ceremony that in private made her feel they were such good friends. But even aside from this cool and correct manner, Gerald seemed to her different to-day—calmer, more serene, less needing sympathy, as if something of his friend the abbe had rubbed off on to him.
As he was going on, in language that reminded her of a book, she interrupted him.
"Don't you want to show me your house?"
"I was going to suggest it," he said at once. "There are several things I should like to show you. Will you come?"
She rose to follow, losing some of her constraint.
"It's what we always do on the Cape. Any one comes for the first time, we show them all over our house."
When they were outside the drawing-room door, she felt more like herself.
"Oh, I'm so glad I can't tell you to see the place where you live!" she expanded.
They went down the long corridor, past a closed door which he disappointingly did not open.
"It's a dark room we use to store things," he explained. Neither did he open the door at the end of the hall. "It's Vincent's room," he said.
They turned into the darker, narrower corridor, bent again, and went toward the little window high over somebody else's garden. He ushered Mrs. Hawthorne into the kitchen, for here, near the ceiling, was the door-bell, and on it the well-known coat of arms, crown and cannon-balls, which testified to the age and aristocracy of the house.
While he sought to interest her in this curiosity, Aurora was looking at everything besides; for Giovanna was making preparations for dinner, and Aurora's thoughts were busy with the fowl she saw run on a long spit and waiting to be roasted before a bundle of sticks at the back of the sort of masonry counter that served as kitchen stove.
"They do have the queerest ways of doing things!" she murmured.
He took her across the passage and into the dining-room. He wished to show her an old china tea-set, quaintly embellished with noble palaces and parks, that had been his great-grandmother's. There again she looked but casually at the thing he accounted fit for her examination, and carefully, if surreptitiously, at all the rest.
Last he showed her into the great square interior room with the glass door on to the terrace over the court, the room which had been his mother's and was now his own, and where hung a portrait of his mother. On this Aurora fixed attentive and serious eyes, and had no need to feign feeling, for appropriate feelings welled in her heart.
"How gentle she looks!" she said softly. "And how much you must miss her!"
She stood for some time really trying to make acquaintance with the vanished woman through that faded pastel likeness of her in youth which Gerald kept where it had hung in her day, the portrait of herself which she womanishly preferred because, as she did not conceal, it flattered her.
"She looks like one of those people you would have just loved to lift the burdens off and make everything smooth for," Aurora said; "and yet she looks like one of those people who spend their whole lives trying to make things smooth for others."
"Yes," said Gerald to that artless description of the feminine woman his mother had been, and stood beside his guest, looking pensively up at the portrait.
All at once, Aurora felt like crying. It had been increasing, the oppression to her spirits, ever since she entered this house to which she had come filled with gay anticipation and innocent curiosity. It had struck her from the first moment as gloomy, and it was undoubtedly cold, with its three sticks of wood ceremoniously smoking in the unaccustomed chimney-place. Its esthetic bareness had affected her like the meagerness of poverty. And now it seemed to her sad, horribly so, haunted by the gentle ghosts of that mother and sister who had known and touched all these things, sat in the chairs, looked through the windows, and who conceivably came back in the twilight to flit over the uncarpeted floor and peer in the dim mirrors to see how much the grave had changed them. She shivered. Yes, cold and bare and sad seemed Gerald's dwelling. And Gerald, whose very bearing was a dignified denial that anything about himself or his circumstances could call for compassion—Gerald, thin and without color, looked to her cold-pinched and under-nourished. She had a sense of his long evenings alone, drearily without fire, his solitary meals in that dining-room so unsuggestive of good cheer; she thought of that single candle on the night-table burning in this cold, large room where he went to bed in that bed of iron, laying his head on that small hair pillow, to dream bitter dreams of a fair girl's treachery.
She wanted to turn to him protesting:
"Oh, I can't stand it! What makes you do it?"
His next words changed the current of her thoughts.
"I have another portrait of my mother," he said; "one I painted, which I will show you if you care to see it."
She cheered up.
"Do! do!" she urged heartily. "I'm crazy to see something you've painted."
"You won't care for my painting," he pronounced without hesitation; "but the portrait gives a good idea of my mother, I think, when she was older than this."
They returned to the drawing-room, where their friends were in the same way engaged as when they left them. One pair was looking at a large illustrated book; the other two sat leaning toward each other talking in undertones.
"The bird which you see," the abbe was saying, "with the smaller birds crowding around him, is a pelican. The pelican, you know, who opens his breast to feed his young, is a symbol of the Church."
"It's not true, though, that the pelican does that," Estelle was on the point of saying with American freedom, "any more than that a scorpion surrounded by fire commits suicide. I read it in a Sunday paper where a lot of old superstitions were exploded." But she tactfully did nothing of the sort. She appeared instructed and impressed.
What Miss Seymour was saying to Mrs. Foss would have sounded a little singular to any one overhearing. The two women had been friends for years, but never come so near to each other as, it chanced, they did that afternoon, when all fell so favorably for a heart to heart talk.
"I feel as if I had lost a key!" said Miss Seymour, and looked like a bewildered princess turned old by a wicked fairy's spell. "When I possessed it I thought nothing of it. It opened all the doors, but I didn't know what it was made them so easy to open. Only now, when it's gone, I know the value of that little golden key."
"I know," said Mrs. Foss, sympathetically. "There's no use in us women pretending we don't mind! Those who really and truly don't must be great philosophers or great fools, or else selfless to a degree that is rarer even than philosophy...."
Gerald and Aurora crossed the room unhailed and entered the room beyond, where dusty canvases, many deep, stood face to the wall.
He found the unframed painting of his mother and placed it on the easel. The short winter day was waning, but near the window where the easel stood there was still light enough to see by.
Aurora looked a long time without saying anything; Gerald did not speak either. After the length of time one allows for the examination of a picture, he took away that one and put another in its place; and so on until he had shown her a dozen.
"I don't know what to say," she finally got out, as if from under a crushing burden of difficulty to express herself.
"Please don't try!" he begged quickly. "And please not to care a bit if you don't like them."
She let out her breath as at the easing of a strain. He heard it.
"I won't be so offensive," he went on, "as to say that in not liking them you merely add yourself to the majority, nor yet that my feelings are in no wise hurt by your failure to like them. But I do wish you to know that I think it a sin and a shame to get a person like you, who can't pretend a bit, before a lot of beastly canvases inevitably repugnant to your mood and temperament, and make you uncomfortable with the feeling that compliments are expected."
"All right, then; I won't tell any lies." She added in a sigh, "I did want so much to like them!"
And he would never know what shining bubble burst there. She had wanted so much, as she said, to like them, and, as she did not say, to buy some of them, a great many of them, and make him rich with her gold.
He replied to her sigh:
"You are very kind."
After a moment spent gazing at the last painting placed on the easel, as if she hoped tardily to discover some merit in it, she said:
"I don't know a thing about painting, so nothing I could say about your way of doing it could matter one way or the other. But I have eyes to see the way things and people look. Tell me, now, honest Injun, do they look that way to you—the way you paint them?"
"Mrs. Hawthorne, no! Emphatically, no. And emphatically yes. When I look at them as you do, in the street, across the table, they look to me probably just as they do to you; but when I sit down to paint them—yes, they look to me as I have shown them looking in these portraits."
"But they're so sad! So sad it's cruel!" she objected.
"Oh, no," he objected to her objection; "it's not quite as bad as that."
"They make me perfectly miserable."
He whipped the canvas off the easel, saying dryly:
"Don't think of them again!"
It looked like impatience. With hands thrust in his pockets he took a purposeless half-turn in the room, then came back to her side.
"If you totally detest them, I am sorry," he said mildly. "I had wanted to offer you one, a little, unobtrusive one to stick in some corner, a token of the artist's regard."
"Oh, do! do!" she grasped at his friendly tender. "Find a little cheerful one, if you can. I shall love to have it."
He selected a small panel of a single tall, palely expanding garden poppy, more gray than violet, against a background of shade. Flower though it was, it still affected one like the portrait of a lady wronged and suffering.
In the drawing-room to which they returned Giovanna had lighted a lamp. The fire had properly caught and was burning more brightly; the place looked rosy and warm, after the winter twilight filling the other room and the chill that reigned there.
Aurora returned to the tea-table; with a disengaged air she reached for plum-cake. She ascertained with comfort that Mrs. Foss did not look sad or Estelle ill used; that the abbe was as serene as ever and Miss Seymour, after her talk with Mrs. Foss, rather serener than usual. Gerald was far jollier than any of his portraits. To make sure that she was no depressing object herself, she smiled the warmest, sunniest smile she was capable of.
"Do come and talk a little bit with me, before I have to go home!" she unexpectedly called out to the abbe.
When at the end of the long evening spent together smoking and talking the two friends separated for the night, Gerald went to his room as did Vincent to his. But Gerald had no more than pulled off his necktie when he changed his mind, went back to the drawing-room, crossed the tobacco-scented space where something seemed to linger of the warmth of goodfellowship, and entered the farther room.
A doubt had risen in his mind. He could not wait till morning to see his work with a fresh eye, an eye as fresh as Mrs. Hawthorne's, and satisfy himself as to whether he, so careful of truth, had unconsciously come to exaggerating, falsifying his impressions, grown guilty of hollow mannerisms.
Whatever he had said, he had been stung by Mrs. Hawthorne's liking his paintings so little. It was easy to console oneself remembering the poor lady's ignorance of art. The truth might be that something was wrong with the pictures, which suspicion had driven the artist to go and have a dispassionate look at them in the frigid hour between twelve and one of the night. If a person is on the way to becoming a morbid ass he cannot find it out too soon.
Gerald's dogma was that the first duty of a picture is to be beautiful. His critics did not give sufficient attention to that aspect of his work, he privately thought; they were put off by what they mistakenly called its queerness, its mere difference from the academic, the conventional. This was bitter, because he had always so loved beautiful lines, beautiful tints, had insisted that the very texture, of his painting should have the beauty of fine-grained skin.
He was no conspicuous colorist, of course, he did not by temperament revel in the glow of rich, bold, endlessly varied tints. It was a limitation, which his work naturally reflected. This was marked in fact by modesty and melancholy of color-scheme. But that did not interfere with beauty, he maintained. He had been thrilled by the discovery in the Siena gallery of an old master with the same predilections as he, an antipathy apparently to the vivid, crying, self-assertive colors, which he accordingly with admirable simplicity left out, and interpreted the world all in blues and greens, grays and violets, whites of many degrees and tones and meanings.
"They're so sad that it's cruel!" Mrs. Hawthorne had voiced the instinctive objection of her earth-loving, life-praising disposition to the view he took of people and things. But what was there to do about it? When he looked at a sitter to render his personality sincerely, that was the way he saw him. If he had been limited to rendering a human being in the single aspect he wore while walking from the drawing-room to the dinner-table with a lady on his arm and a rich meal in prospect, he would have given up painting, it interested him so little. Most of the portrait-painters in vogue did thus paint the surface and nothing besides. Gerald had no envy of their large fees at the price of such boredom as he would have suffered in their place.
He held a canvas to the light of his candle. It was an old one of Amabel. She had not been sitting for him, he had made this sketch from a distance while she worked on her side. It was easy to see that the room was cold, that the woman with the pinched aristocratic nose, the little shawl over her shoulders, was poor, determined and anxious. If Mrs. Foss had said, "But Amabel never was as hollow-cheeked as that, nor ever looked pathetic in the least," Gerald could only have answered, "I swear to you this is how she looked to me on that day."
He studied the portrait of his mother, one of his earliest, bad in a way, but excellent in the matter of likeness. His mother no more than Amabel had been a pathetic person, Mrs. Foss would certainly have said. To which Gerald might have answered that she was not so during an afternoon call; but that the most characteristic thing about that gentle and delicate woman had been the fact of her living so much in the life of others and being open to endless sorrows through them. The dim affectionate eyes, the deprecating half-smile of his mother, engaged sympathy for the unfair plight.
Last, he took up a portrait of Violet. She had been in the perfection of young beauty; she had had no capacity for deep feeling, really,—why did an aroma of sadness escape from that dainty colored shadow of her? Why, but because of the artist's yearning sense that beauty is transitory, and the loveliest girl subject to destiny, and the future full of pitfalls for the fragility of all flesh!
"Imagine a barnyard fowl, a common white hen pecking among the gravel," Gerald once illustrated his view-point, "and imagine hovering over it a hawk, which it hasn't seen. Does it make no difference in your sense of the hen that you see the hawk?"
"It comes to this," Leslie on a certain occasion summed up Gerald's case: "Gerald isn't satisfied to paint the thing that's before him. All he cares to paint is the soul of things, and what you finally see expressed on the canvas is his pity for everything that has the misfortune to be born into an unsatisfactory world. Gerald can't see a thing as being common: the moment he narrows his eyes to look for purposes of art, it becomes to him exceptional, unique. I asked him once, as a joke, to paint me a simple, large, bright orange squash, in a field. And he did. A masterpiece. One can't say that the squash isn't large, orange, and true to life. But what a squash! It has an amount of personal distinction, an air of rarity and remoteness, that would make you think twice, nay, three times, before making such a precious product of the sacred earth into pies!"
When he was chilled through and his hands were numb, Gerald remembered to pick up his candle and go to bed. No change of opinion, it is needless to say, had resulted from his midnight inquiry.
A point of natural spite made him say that he did not ask people to like his pictures. All he asked was permission to go on painting as he pleased, obscure and independent, the sincere apostle of a peculiar creed, working out his problems with conscience and fidelity. If fate might send him critics whose opinion he valued he would be properly grateful. He felt the need of criticism and companionship, in his work, but had no regard for his fellow artists in Florence. His thoughts turned sometimes with envy toward Paris, where modern art had some vitality, and artist life the advantage of stimulating associations. There was a good deal of talk at the time, and some derision, of a new phase called impressionism, whose chief seat was Paris.
As for the opinion of such a person as Mrs. Hawthorne, it obviously had no value. But while the artist could brush her aside in the character of critic, it remained a little galling to the man to know he figured in her mind as a painter who did not know how to paint.
"Can't paint for sour apples!" he seemed to hear her reporting to Estelle, and got in his mouth the taste of the apples.